Nothing says spring quite like the Return of the Swallows Festival at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
I’ve heard tell of it since we studied California History at Sunkist Elementary School, way back in 4th grade. Fiesta de las Golondrinas: that’s how we said it later, in Spanish class.
Legend has it that a San Juan Capistrano shopkeeper swiped at the Cliff Swallows‘ mud nests with a broom, grumbling all the while about the mess these tiny “nuisances” made. The kindly Father O’Sullivan, intervened. “Come on swallows,” he said, “I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”
Scientific evidence suggests a different timeline, but tradition says that it was during Monsignor St. John (“Sin-Jin”) O’Sullivan’s tenure at the Mission (1910-33) that the Cliff Swallows first built their gourd-shaped nests on the renovated Sacristy of the Old Stone Church, and under the red tile roofs of its outbuildings.
Every autumn, O’Sullivan noted in his journal, the tiny birds vacated their nests for warmer climates. All the way to Argentina, as it turns out. Come springtime, they’d once again find their way back to San Juan Capistrano (a 15,00 mile journey!), where they’d spend several pleasant months in their former nests.
Each year, Father O’Sullivan welcomed the swallows’ return. They were sheltered by the mission, just as he promised.
Sad to say, recent Mission restoration projects have proved themselves detrimental to the swallows’ migration, same as with nearby housing developments. The community wants very much to lure the swallows back to the Mission. In consultation with concerned experts, they’ve hatched some creative ideas, none of which have proved successful. So far. You can read more about those efforts here.
And still, the visitors come. Tourists from around the globe flock to Mission San Juan Capistrano on March 19th every year, undeterred by the swallows’ potential absence. The Festival was on my bucket list, too, for as long as I’ve lived in Orange County. Which is to say, I’ve procrastinated for a good long while. But this year, I put it my calendar. In ink. Regardless. And whaddya know: I finally made it!
The festivities began with hushed silence, followed by the ringing of the Mission Basilica school bells.
As with most cultural events, there was pageantry of all sorts–including but not limited to storytelling and dancing, clanging bells and mariachi music.
Monarch butterflies drifted through the gardens, which were just now coming into bloom.
Sacred objects were on display, as were ancient California cultural artifacts. It was a feast for all senses, a joyful occasion with a little something for everybody.
For this first-time visitor, it was the schoolchildren’s performances in the sunny courtyard — all radiant smiles and vibrant costumes–that brought these long-standing traditions to life.
We watched them for nearly two hours in the open courtyard, sunshine streaming down on us from a cloudless sky. Ahhh, spring.
Some visitors retreated to the darkened chapel. Still others made a beeline from the ticket line to the gift shop. The lines grew long at the Snow Cone stand, and the exhibit halls emptied. No matter. There was shelter for everybody, room for all.